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Obama Shields 5 Million Undocumented. Should We Worry?

Economic and social science data suggest little reason for concern.

By Mikhail Lyubansky, Paul Harris, William Baker, and Cameron Lippard

As President Barack Obama uses his executive powers to grant work permits to some undocumented immigrants and shield up to 5 million such immigrants from deportation, we can expect public attention to shift, at least temporarily to the immigration debate.

President Obama

Importantly, while the percentage of Americans who see immigration as a major problem has waxed and waned over the last decade (Jones, 2012), public opinion appears to be split across the usual political lines, with 19% of Republicans citing immigration as the single most important problem facing the nation (Suro & Escobar, 2006; Ceobanu & Escandell, 2010).

In this context, it is not surprising that undocumented immigration, a “lighting rod” issue in the United States since before the Civil Rights Movement, is by all accounts, more controversial than ever. In addition to long-standing concerns about undercut wages and educational costs, many Americans are now also worried about the potential deleterious impact on public health and national security (Camarota, 2009; Chavez, 2008).

Most of the debate, however, continues to center on the economic implications of undocumented migration, with many believing that reducing the numbers of undocumented residents would lower unemployment, increase wages, and lower taxes, while others argue that the labor performed by undocumented migrants, often in undesirable and low paying jobs, is vital to the health of the U.S. economy (Van Hook, Bean, & Passel, 2005). Altogether, the public opinion polls indicate that 50-60% of Americans consider undocumented immigration to be a “very serious” problem and another 30% a “somewhat serious” one (Pew Hispanic Center, 2006).

stop deportations

Notably, economists tend to not share the public’s concern. For example, in the mid-1980s, when immigration reform was widely debated and when the U.S. government granted legal status to large numbers of undocumented workers, public opinion polls showed that 84% of the public expressed concern about the number of illegal aliens in the country, and 79% supported penalties against businesses that hire illegal aliens (Harwood, 1986). In contrast, 74% of economists surveyed in 1985 believed that illegal immigration had a positive impact on the economy (Moore, 1986). In line with these findings, studies during this time period showed that negative views about immigration generally decreased with higher income and education, suggesting that those who are less threatened economically and have greater expertise regarding immigration tend to have more favorable views about immigration’s consequences (Moore, 1986).

That said, the contemporary demographic reality is vastly different from that of the mid-1980s in two important ways. For one, the undocumented population has increased from approximately 3.5 million in 1990 to 8.4 million in 2000 to over 11 million in 2011 (Passel & Cohn, 2011; Batalova & Lee, 2012). Secondly, whereas in 1990 nearly half of all unauthorized migrants lived in California and 80% lived in one of four traditional immigrant destinations (California, Texas, New York, and Florida), by the early 2000s those percentages dropped to 25% and 54%, respectively, with “new destination” states such as Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas all showing five to six-fold growth since the 1990s (Massey, 2008; Lippard and Gallagher, 2011; Van Hook et al., 2005). As a result, dozens of counties and many more municipalities are now for the first time grappling with the challenges of absorbing and integrating an immigrant community they view as culturally different and unfamiliar (Massey, 2008; Lippard and Gallagher, 2011; Odem and Lacy, 2009).

This is particularly evident in Georgia, where the percentage of foreign-born has increased almost 550% since 1990, thus making it a good case-study for the rest of the nation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau and recent reports, almost 400,000 immigrants entered the state of Georgia since 2000, and in 2011, 942,921 immigrants resided in Georgia, up from fewer than 175,000 in 1990 (Migration Policy Institute, 2011). Of this number, the majority (54%) arrived from Latin America, primarily from Mexico (29%).

While the geographic origin of Georgia’s foreign-born population mirrors that of the United States, what is notable about the migration to Georgia is that most of its immigrants are relatively recent arrivals, with 31% entering the country during the 1990s and an additional 43% arriving since 2000 (Migration Policy Institute, 2011). It is also noteworthy that, with an estimated 440,000, Georgia now ranks 7th among all states in the number of undocumented immigrants (Redmon, 2012; Associated Press, 2012). This number comprises approximately 45% of the State’s foreign-born population, a percentage significantly higher than the 28% national average (Passel & Cohn, 2011; Immigration Policy Center, 2011).

Despite their relatively recent arrival (and disproportionate percentage with undocumented status), citizenship rates and English language fluency among immigrants in Georgia are generally comparable to national data. Specifically, just under 40% of Georgia’s immigrants report having citizenship status compared with 42% of the foreign-born nationally, and 47% report having limited English proficiency, compared to 51% nationally (Migration Policy Institute, 2011). Furthermore, according to the American Community Survey, 29% of all Spanish-speaking households in Georgia are linguistically isolated, meaning that all persons age 14 and over in the household have limited English proficiency. (Migration Policy Institute, 2011)

Notably, neither the lack of English fluency nor other obstacles to employment (e.g., documentation) seem to be keeping Spanish-speaking migrants in Georgia out of the workforce. According to the Migration Policy Institute’s 2011 report, 76% of those in Georgia who speak Spanish at home (this includes both native and foreign-born) are in the labor force, compared to 64% of those who speak only English and 70% of those who speak an Asian and Pacific Island language. While the exact percentage of undocumented residents who are employed is difficult to determine, most are assumed to be in the workforce, which according to Pew estimates is 5% undocumented (Immigrant Policy Center, 2011).

Though probably employed at comparable rates, documented and undocumented immigrants still differ on a number of social and economic indicators. For example, the March, 2004 Current Population Survey shows that undocumented immigrants are more likely to have less education, be employed in low-wage, low-skill jobs, and have a significantly lower ($27,400 in 2003) average family income (Coffey, 2005; Passel & Cohn, 2009).

More specifically, after controlling for education and type of occupation, Hall, Greenman, and Farkas (2010) found a 17 percent wage disparity between documented and undocumented Mexican immigrant men and a 9 percent disparity between documented and undocumented women. Moreover, even when they are able to overcome the legal and financial obstacles to higher education, undocumented Mexican immigrants have lower returns on education in comparison to their documented cohort, (Martinez-Calderon, 2009).

Undocumented immigrants, like all citizens, are required to pay income tax, and numerous studies have shown a compliance rate from 50-70% for this population (Congress of the United States Congressional Budget Office, 2007), which is estimated to contribute $7 billion per year just into Social Security (Porter, 2005). Undocumented immigrants also pay sales and state income taxes. In Georgia, the average undocumented family contributes approximately $2400 in state and local sales, income, and property taxes, yielding $215.6-$252.5 million for Georgia’s state and local coffers (Coffey, 2005; West, 2010).

Also, unlike their documented counterparts, undocumented immigrants are restricted by federal law from the majority of services, including food stamps, social security, SSI, full-scope Medicaid, Medicare Part A, and HUD Public Housing and Section 8 programs. Generally, the only Federal benefits authorized for undocumented immigrants are emergency medical care and elementary and secondary public education (Lipman, 2006).

Overall, though the conclusions are disputed by anti-immigration groups such as the Center for Immigration Studies (see, for example, Camarota, 2004), the preponderance of empirical data indicate that “undocumented [immigrants] actually contribute more to public coffers in taxes than they cost is social services.” (Lipman, 2006, p. 2). Data regarding the cost of these services in Georgia are not available, but, as in the nation as a whole, there is a common public perception that the costs far exceed the tax revenue generated by this population (Coffey, 2005).

Another difference between documented and undocumented immigrants has been their relative treatment in American society. As suggested in public polls, undocumented Mexican immigrants are often the target of anti-immigrant sentiment (Chavez, 2008; Jaret, 1999). Lippard and Spann (in press) found that undocumented Mexican immigrants reported facing higher rates of discrimination than documented immigrants in most Western North Carolina institutions, including public schools and health agencies. Undocumented respondents also reported more blatant and violent episodes of discrimination than their documented cohort.

Similar findings have been reported in multiple other southern institutions and contexts (see Ansley and Shefner, 2009; Lippard and Gallagher, 2011; Massey, 2008; Odem and Lacy, 2009; Smith and Furuseth, 2006), as well as in national studies ( Pew Hispanic Center,2007). Notably, Wampler, Chávez, and Pedraza (2009) found that high levels of discrimination impacted the decisions of undocumented and documented to remain permanently in the United States, sometimes more so than actual documentation status.

Finally, levels of acculturative stress were different for documented and undocumented immigrants. As defined by Arbona et al. (2010, p. 364), acculturative stress refers to “the emotional reaction triggered by the individual’s appraisal of specific events and circumstances in their lives” as associated to working and living in another country.

Alba and Nee (2003) and Chavez (2008) noted that undocumented immigrants struggled more with assimilating into the American mainstream than documented immigrants due to their inability to access programs and even the American public sphere due to restrictive anti-immigrant laws. Arbona et al. (2010) found that undocumented immigrants reported higher levels of acculturative stress due to the separation of family, “traditionality,” and language difficulties in comparison to documented immigrants. However, notably the two groups reported similar levels of fear concerning deportation and government decisions about immigration policy.

Even though much of the above would suggest that foreign-born migrants, regardless of immigration status, are attempting to acculturate and positively contribute to U.S. society, anti-immigrant sentiment continues to grow in new destinations, particularly in the state of Georgia (Lippard and Gallagher, 2011).

For example, a 2001 statewide survey in Georgia found that 25 percent equated rising crime rates in Georgia with immigration, almost 75 percent asserted that immigrants get too much public assistance, and large numbers clearly viewed undocumented Mexican immigrants as the culprits of public resource shortages in public education and health (Neal and Bohon, 2003).

In conclusion, even though Americans have socially constructed a difference between documented and undocumented immigrants, stigmatizing the undocumented as a culturally alien group uninterested in acculturation, researchers have found few real differences in their backgrounds, desires, identities, and even experiences with discrimination following migration. Moreover, as discussed earlier, the data fail to support the popular belief that undocumented immigrants either exert a downward pressure on wages or are a net drain on tax revenues (Lipman, 2006). These findings have important policy implications, especially with immigration reform a likely focus of the current presidential administration.

On the basis of these findings and the broad literature base, lawmakers should feel confident that neither the U.S. economy nor the nation’s social fabric would be harmed by amnesty for undocumented individuals currently in the United States. To the contrary, the data suggest that immigrants, including the undocumented, comprise an essential part of U.S. families, workplaces and communities and are likely to continue to do so in the foreseeable future (Immigration Policy Center, 2009).

Note: Much of the content of this post originally appeared in Lyubansky, M., Harris, P., Baker, W., Lippard, C. (2013). “One Day on the Red Hills of Georgia”: The Effects of Immigration Status on Latino Migrants’ Experience of Discrimination, Utilization of Public Services, and Attitudes Toward Acculturation. Norteamérica, Revista Académica del CISAN-UNAM Año 8, número especial.


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